An Art of Time
Barry Schwabsky
August 25, 2010 This article appeared in the September 13, 2010 edition of The Nation.

Shows by the peripatetic Puerto Rican–born artist Rafael Ferrer have been curiously sparse on the exhibition calendar in recent years, so his recent retrospective—or, as its title would have it, "Retro/Active"—at El Museo del Barrio in New York City was a welcome reminder of the powerful, protean oeuvre he has fashioned in more than half a century of artmaking. Forty years ago his work would have been hard to avoid. In 1969 he participated in three of the signal exhibitions of the new wave of conceptual, postminimal, process-oriented and "antiform" art that would dominate the scene for much of the next decade: "Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form" at the Kunsthalle Bern; "Op Losse Schroeven (Square Pegs in Round Holes)" at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year Ferrer had a one-man show at New York's leading

Ferrer's work from those days was not very prominently displayed at El Museo; however, much of it consisted of highly ephemeral installations of unconventional materials—piles of dead leaves and massive blocks of ice were particular favorites. In "Retro/Active" these were represented by means of a wall of small photographs that had been banished to a side room, although it would have been worth the trouble—a lot of trouble, admittedly—to re-create a couple of these ventures into what Carter Ratcliff has called "a medium that was part sculpture, part theater, part guerilla action on the aesthetic front." By contrast, the more conventional paintings and sculptures Ferrer made in the 1950s and early '60s, when he was still finding his way as an artist, were fully integrated into curator Deborah Cullen's thematic (rather than chronological) traversal of Ferrer's career, giving a possibly misleading sense of its overall shape.

Since the '70s, Ferrer's work has been strikingly polymorphous, ranging from sculpture and painting to drawing, collage and books. Just as he was associated with process art at the end of the '60s, around 1980 he started making figurative paintings that seemed to be right in step with the Neo-Expressionism just then on the horizon. Journalists saw this style of painting as a rejection of the avant-garde of the '70s; but in its crudity, the new painting was yet another attempt to start again from scratch, just as much of the art of the '70s had been. More than a few of its protagonists, notably Francesco Clemente and David Salle, had, like Ferrer, first essayed the more conceptual aesthetics of the previous decade. I doubt, though, that their paintings would hold up anywhere near as well as Ferrer's do today. For all the variousness of his efforts, it would be wrong to see Ferrer as an eclectic artist, one whose work lacks coherence or commitment—at least after his years of youthful experimentation, which admittedly lasted longer than is common these days. Born in 1933, he was already in his late 30s by the time he began making the process-oriented installations that can be considered his first mature works.

Along with several new texts, the catalog for "Retro/Active" reprints a long and searching essay by Ratcliff published in the catalog for an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 1973. What's remarkable about "Rafael Ferrer in the Tropical Sublime" is how descriptive it still seems today of the thinking behind Ferrer's work, even of the work made over the subsequent thirty-seven years, much of which bears very little overt resemblance to anything the artist was doing back then. This is testimony, of course, to a critical perspicuity on Ratcliff's part that practically amounts to prescience, but also to the fact that the multifariousness of Ferrer's art nonetheless manifests a dogged insistence. He has simply taken as many approaches as possible to a few recurrent themes—or perhaps it would be better to say a few recurrent obsessions.

Ratcliff shows, too, that Ferrer's work was always in fundamental tension with the context it appeared to be part of, in the first instance the new forms of art that developed in New York in the wake of minimalism.Think of Robert Morris, with whom Ferrer was closely linked at this time, or Richard Serra, whose works were only the residue of simple physical manipulations of materials as exemplified in his famous "Verb List Compilation": "to roll, to crease, to bundle, to heap, to gather, to scatter." Ferrer was undoubtedly concerned with the physical character of the materials he was using and with the visible changes one could see them undergo; but at the same time, as Ratcliff insists, he was always a Romantic with an ingrained faith in the power of symbol, myth and metaphor to give meaningful direction to life through art. In Ratcliff's view, Ferrer's use of autumn leaves was an invocation of Johnny Mercer's sentimental standard of that name and Shakespeare's Sonnet 73—literary and emotional references that were supposed to be taboo for sophisticated artists of the day, who were fundamentally empiricists, intent (as Ratcliff says) on "the construction of non-symbolic objects with no admitted reference to humanity or the natural world." Ferrer used natural materials with blatant symbolic implications, though with a bluntness that headed off any possibility of sentimentality or overly effusive lyricism.

Other early installations by Ferrer juxtaposed similarly transient materials with more solid, evidently sculptural ones, among them steel, tree trunks and neon lights. He also made self-contained sculptures, often in the form of kayaks and other kinds of boats, and began drawing, in crayon, maps of imaginary places. He was summoning the Romantic myth of the journey, the dream of exploration—which, of course, echoed his own real life, moving between Puerto Rico and the American mainland, not to mention Europe, where he had spent an important period in the 1950s, rubbing shoulders with the Surrealists and engaging in deep dialogue with Wifredo Lam, the Cuban-born painter whose work attempted to synthesize a formal syntax derived from Cubism and Surrealism with an iconography reflecting his culture's African and Indian roots. Ferrer's use of crayons shows his attraction to the pictorial expressiveness of children, the untutored, people on the margins—another Romantic theme—and he also used them to design masklike forms on paper bags, something he still does today. This multitude of faces constitutes a marvelous vocabulary of legible forms in which observation and invention become indistinguishable.

What separates Ferrer's paintings of the 1980s and '90s from the Neo-Expressionism with which they might have been confused (and which they might have influenced) is a predominance of observation. If the art of the 1960s and '70s, for all the brilliance of its innovations, was rendered too narrow (and, ultimately, academic) by its extreme empiricism, which ruled out of bounds so much of art's potential material, then the besetting sin of the art that in the 1980s emerged in reaction against it would have to be an excessive subjectivism, an overindulgence in the cultivation of what Harald Szeemann dubbed "individual mythologies" unchecked by any significant external reality. In an interview with Vincent Katz, Ferrer says, "I know that I am attracted to German Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Dix, Beckmann," which might seem to underline an affinity for the later Neo-Expressionists as well, but like the early twentieth-century Expressionists and unlike the Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s, he was finding his symbols in an encounter with reality, and one with an immediate political dimension at that: the subaltern.

In 1975, after nearly a decade spent mostly in Philadelphia, Ferrer again began spending much of his time in Puerto Rico; in 1985 he gave up his home there for one in the Dominican Republic. It was in Puerto Rico that Ferrer seriously took up painting, after a visit from Alex Katz suddenly convinced him that painting from observation still had a future; and the subject matter of nearly all his best painting has come from his experience of the islands. This has led to misunderstandings. When a critic referred to his style as "faux primitivism," Ferrer objected that the characterization was based on a prejudice about the people he depicted rather than on his way of painting them. "They can call the people in the paintings natives or they can call them inhabitants of this place or the other, but I call them neighbors."

Actually, some of the first paintings Ferrer made after his return to the medium do betray a certain primitivism. I'm thinking of works like El Cuarteto (The Quartet) or Melida la Reina (Melida the Queen), both from 1981, which almost seem like elaborations of his paper-bag mask fantasies. But by mid-decade his style had become distinctly more sophisticated, settling into a sturdy Modernism that would not have looked outrageous to any of Ferrer's early twentieth-century heroes but with a personal inflection that could never be confused with anyone else's. Ferrer's brush is tough, unsentimental; he prefers to show things bluntly rather than suavely coaxing them into visibility. His pictorial space can seem almost hammered into place—as if an imprint of his work as a sculptor. His use of the word "neighbors" to describe his subjects is quite precise. In painting the people who lived near him in the Dominican Republic, he was painting neither familiars—it is telling that although Ferrer has done self-portraits, he has rarely painted his family or close friends—nor complete strangers. Wariness and curiosity register in the faces of many of Ferrer's subjects, although others appear more ingenuous. There is no false familiarity here, but rather a distance to be negotiated. And it can be negotiated.